Today we ventured inland into the Gaeltacht in the search of St Lachteen. St Lachteen (526- 622AD) is patron saint of the Kilnamatrya area, cill na matra meaning church of the relic. This relic in question was an armbone of the saint, housed in an extraordinary artefact: the Lámh Lachtáin. The gorgeous reliquary dates from the twelfth century and is in the shape of a human arm. It is made from yew wood with ornamental bronze panels inlaid with silver. Inside it is hollow and once contained a sliver of bone from the saintly arm. It was found in Donoughmore some miles away, where St Lachteen founded a monastery. (There is holy well here too, on the list to be visited). Although the reliquary has since been removed to Dublin, it’s now in the National Museum, it seems the relic may have originally been kept in a church just outside Kilnamatrya. Local churches and schools are still dedicated to St Lachteen, as are several holy wells.
Holy Well & Pillar Stone
It was crisp and cold as we set out, with a wonderful light inland, the landscape changing rapidly with mountain passes, rocky outcrops, emerald green pastures and brilliant colours. First a quick detour to Baile Bhúirne, (Ballyvourney), and a search for a holy well marked on an early OS map, situated somewhere near St Gobnait’s Stone, Cloch Ghobnatan – a remarkable cross slab, found in the middle of a field and protected within a little walled enclosure.
The stone is carved on each side with arc-shaped crosses within a circle, like Maltese crosses. There is also the carving of a small figure, cloaked and carrying a crozier, who is generally interpreted as a pilgrim. He is extremely hard to see and now much eroded and covered in lichen. The pillar is not in its original position but believed to have been found close to a dried up well, many years ago – was it the well I was searching for?
This is holy ground for at the other end of the town lies the remarkable pilgrimage site dedicated to St Gobnait, complete with two holy wells and the saint’s shrine. A little further on another fascinating site can be found in the woods, dedicated to St Abbán, possibly Gobnait’s brother. No sign of any holy well here though, just green pasture with boggy bits. This area by the entrance to the field looked interesting but I think it was probably just wall.
Well of the Fasting, Toberan Aoine
A little further on and another quick detour to search for Toberan Aoine, Well of the Fasting. This was right on the side of the road, a spring still bubbling out of the ground with stones carelessly scattered amongst the mud, perhaps the remains of the original wellhouse.
An interesting name, presumably pilgrims were expected to fast before doing the rounds here? Or was it a well visited during Lent?
An intriguing area though with snazzy pink and white striped silage bales and an old farmstead, long since abandoned but full of beautiful colours.
St Lachteen’s Well, Tobar Lachtáin, Cloheena
Next stop Cloheena, Cloch Eidhneach – high above green valleys, remote, wild and scenic with two wells dedicated to the saint in the townland. The first St Lachteen well seemed to be in a field just off the road – once an ancient highway into Kilnamatrya known as the Bealach Feabhradh. I asked at the house. She looked a little doubtful but called himself who knew of a well, now dry but only ever used for domestic water. He went to fetch his father who was having his dinner but promised to join us shortly which he kindly did. Connie explained that once there had been a church and graveyard (CO069-079) dedicated to St Lachteen below in the fields. It sounds as though this was once an impressive site – the church large and the graveyard ancient. This is the church that may have originally housed the beautiful relic the Lámh Lachtáin, and would have been a site of significant pilgrimage. The church survived Viking attacks, was razed by Oliver Cromwell and existed as an historic ruin until recently when shockingly the whole site had was ploughed up. Understandably, Connie was furious for over 300 people had been buried here during the Famine, and many more before that. It is clearly a significant historical site, astonishing that this could happen. He assured me that the well, now gone, was only ever used for domestic purposes but the Archaeological Inventory seems convinced it was a holy well. Given the significance of the site this seems entirely likely.
Connie did know of a stone, or part of a stone which was somewhere in the ditch. We searched: a very handsome dry stone wall with larger blocks of stone scattered here and there– once from the church?
But no sign of the stone which sounded very much like a ballaun described by the Inventory as being somewhere in the fence (CO069-055). He told me that two other stones (CO069-024001; CO069-024002) had been removed and were now in the grounds of nearby Reananarree RC Church. It seems that decorated quernstones had also been found on the site, now in Macroom Museum. How sad that so little now remains.
Connie gave us directions for the next well and on the way we stopped off to look at the stones in the church. They were indeed ballauns and they were colossal, not so much the basins but the stones containing them.
The first ballaun is just as you go into the church on the left, the bowl still full of water but mossy round the edges.
The second ballaun is at the other end of the church now elevated on a stone pillar. A plaque informs that the stones were removed from the old church dedicated to St Lachteen in Cloheena, the site just visited.
Further confirmation that the original church dedicated to St Lachteen by Connie’s farm must have been quite special to warrant such monuments.
St Lachteen’s Well, Tobar Lachtáin, Cloheena
We followed Connie’s instructions on to the next well, pass a timber yard, look for the new path next to a bungalow. The new path was very new and led right up to a car park, its newness and rawness slightly undoing the mystery of the place. This well was situated on a rocky outcrop, a stone cross perched on top, erected in the 1950s.
The well consisted of two basins, side by side, a small ledge between them topped by a cross-inscribed stone – the stone used to make the crosses handily perched on top.
Stone slabs had been arranged as niches, currently empty apart from a plastic bottle. Everywhere white quartz rocks and pebbles. The ballauns were full – Connie told us that there was different coloured water in each basin, a bit hard to differentiate today, but a common feature for multiple ballauns. The water was traditionally used to cure sore eyes.
St Lachteen’s Well, Tobar Lachtáin, Ballyvoge
The next well, also dedicated to St Lachteen, looked a bit challenging to find – some where over a few fields by a field boundary. Thanks goodness for the GPS which led me to exactly the right spot. Once a substantial beehive-shaped wellhouse had covered the well but it was now collapsed amongst the briars, just remnants of walls and a sturdy lintel still standing.
Once the roof had been corbelled, niches for offerings in the inside.The well was now dry. No one had been here for some time though the site was carefully fenced off. What a magnificent situation though over looking rolling hills and pasture.
All these wells were visited once visited on St Lachteen’sFeast Day,19th March, when an annual pilgrimage took place. There are several other wells dedicated to St Lachteen – at Donoughmore already mention and in Kilkenny where he also founded a religious house. It seems Lachteen always had an affinity with water for at the time of his birth there was a severe drought, no water anywhere. An old blind man called Mohemeth took the baby’s hand and made a cross with it in the dry earth and out gushed a fountain of water! The baby was promptly baptised. Later in life, St Lachteen is said to have demonstrated the dropping down and spreading of God’s mercy from Heaven, by using dripping water from a well to illustrate his beliefs.
Home and down to the sea, and an amazing sunset finished off an excellent day.